Mark Helfrich clarifies the Colt Lyerla “circumstances”

Colt-Lyerla-Oregonusat-siIn his weekly Sunday teleconference with the local media, Mark Helfrich clarified his policy regarding disclosing player injury and illness information and why he replied “circumstances” when asked to explain Colt Lyerla’s absence from Saturday’s game.

The Ducks have a team policy of not discussing player injuries or illnesses, the coach said.

Bane in pain, and the story’s grown insane: Colt Lyerla missed Saturday’s game with Tennessee, and information is scarce and conflicting (USA Today photo).



“That’s just not what we do,” Helfrich said. “I think it would be a lot easier for me to talk about it, but I don’t think that’s the best way. And I’ve talked about this with our entire team in a team meeting situation, of why we do things the way we do.”

The reason for the policy, he went on to explain, is to protect player privacy and to keep an opponent from gaining information that might give them a competitive advantage. Third, the coaches want to eliminate potential excuses or distractions.

Reporters questioned him about the one-word reply, suggesting it might have a negative connotation or lead to speculation. Helfrich responded by saying that if “circumstances” had any kind of negative connotation it was unintended, and he would think of another way to say nothing in the future.

Jason Quick posted an interview with Lyerla today, in which the player said he felt “thrown under the bus” by Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Their terse replies after the game made it seem like he had done something wrong. 

“I’m really upset with the way coach Helfrich said that after the game,’’ Lyerla told Quick. “Really disappointed. I feel hurt about this. I watched a little bit of what he said, then started reading all of it, and … it was unfair.’’

Why didn’t they just explain I was sick? Lyerla asked. He’d missed three practices with a stomach virus and was unable to play in the game.

True freshman tight end Johnny Mundt got the start instead, erupting for five catches, 121 yards and two touchdowns, taking one simple hitch route 57 yards down to the Tennessee 9 in a breakout performance.

The interest of Duck fans in Oregon players is virtually unlimited. There’s an emotional connection in this fan base that’s rare and deep, in part because the Ducks invariably select players that are such good people. It’s why there’s such outrage and outsized reaction when a player has an issue with the law or transfers out. Duck fans are bonded to the Ducks, a bond that goes way deeper than the wins and losses.

Reaction to Lyerla’s “circumstances” has been all over the board. Speculation has run to the extreme. It’s the same kind of intense scrutiny Thomas Tyner got in the early weeks of the season, partly fueled by the perfect storm of an extremely talented athlete who’s also a local product. Oregon fans saw the two on “Friday Night Flights.” Their kids, or a friend of a friend who knows this guy, played soccer and little league baseball with them. Both are going to the NFL some day.

So the fascination, interest and expectation grows to unreal heights with the local stars. Mix in a reporter who’s trying to find an angle on a new beat, and it grows to a major misunderstanding. Add it the fact that Lyerla, talented, sensitive, and outspoken, had a subpar game at Virginia just last week, and the whole story gets wacky and volatile in one night of Twitter and Facebook.

Colt Lyerla is a very talented football player. He’s 20 years old and still learning to handle fame, great ability and an age of scrutiny unsurpassed in human history. His physical talent puts him in the category of myth and legend. The Ducks have never thrown to him much; in his first two years the 6-5, 250-lb. tight end with the 40-inch vertical leap caught 32 passes. Eleven of those, though, went for touchdowns.

The conversation about what happened and what was said and what it meant should never have taken place in the media. By now hopefully the coach and the player have had a chance to talk, work out the bruised feelings and get back to practice.

That said, however, if the stated intention of the policy of no disclosure is to protect players and their privacy, it needs to be more nuanced. This was a situation where a player was absent from the team. People were understandably alarmed and concerned. Coaches could have best protected him with a simple statement. “Colt couldn’t practice this week because he was sick.” All the speculation could have been avoided. The implication that he’d failed the team or was in some kind of doghouse would have been replaced with a level of understanding. 

Trying to avoid excuses and distractions just created a bigger distraction.

In the last two years, the Ducks parted ways with two players where there was an official story and the reality in the locker room. Each was an all-league star. Cliff Harris was first benched and then dismissed after repeated disciplinary issues and run-ins with the law. In a completely different situation, John Boyett, a three-year starter at safety, tried to rehab a serious injury without the surgery coaches recommended he should have, wound up having too much pain to play, and left the team after one game in the fall of 2012.

In each case the Ducks lost a starter and a seemingly irreplaceable player, someone the preseason magazines had touted as a vital piece of their success. Each time the team went on to replace that player, in part because of the carefully ingrained mindset of no excuses and no distractions.

So it cuts both ways. The coaches and the players have a job to do, and a commitment to goals that are way larger than one individual. A lot of the story takes place behind the scenes.

Fans can’t help but ask, “why wasn’t Lyerla at the game on Saturday, and what’s his status going forward?”

It’s a question that may not be answered until the first offensive series against California.